Science Has Found Why Some People Always Know Where They Are While Others Get Hopelessly Lost

A boy catches an Australian rules football as members of the Indigenous All Stars visit Yuendumu School in the Australian outback. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Most will acknowledge that some people are better at navigating than others but until now it has been unclear why.

A study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and published in the journal Current Biology, shows the strength and reliability of “homing signals” in the human brain vary among people and can predict navigational ability.

To successfully get to a destination you need to know which direction you are facing and which direction you need to travel in.

It is already known that mammals have brain cells which signal the direction that they are currently facing, a discovery which formed part of the 2014 Nobel Prize to Professor John O’Keefe.

The latest research reveals that the part of the brain which signals which direction you are facing, called the entorhinal region, is also used to signal the direction in which you need to travel to reach your destination.

This part of the brain tells you not only which direction you are currently facing, but also which direction you should be facing in the future.

The researchers have found where our “sense of direction” comes from and have worked out a way to measure it using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

“This type of ‘homing signal’ has been thought to exist for many years, but until now it has remained purely speculation,” says Dr Hugo Spiers of University College London who led the study.

“Studies on London cab drivers have shown that the first thing they do when they work out a route is calculate which direction they need to head in.”

The entorhinal region is one of the first parts of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease, so the findings may also help to explain why people start to get lost in the early stages of the disease.

The researchers hope to develop a simple simulation task so that it might be used to aid early diagnosis and monitor the progression of the disease.

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